Lebanon mourns slain minister

Church bells tolled as the body of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian families, was taken to his native village in the mountains east of Beirut surrounded by a massive crowd of mourners.

World leaders condemned Tuesday’s attack, and angry voices in Lebanon laid the blame on former powerbroker Syria, which still wields significant influence in its smaller neighbour.

Mr Gemayel, 34, hailed as a “fallen martyr for independence” in some Lebanese newspapers, was the sixth anti-Syrian politician or journalist slain in a wave of assassinations in Lebanon over the past two years.

His murder has added to already heightened tensions between the Western-backed government and the powerful pro-Damascus Shiite movement Hezbollah, whose ministers quit the cabinet 10 days ago.

President George W. Bush telephoned Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to express US support for Lebanon’s independence in the face of “the encroachments of Iran and Syria,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Mr Bush accused the two governments of promoting “instability” in Lebanon, but did not tie them outright to the killing, which occurred on the eve of the 63rd anniversary of Lebanon’s independence.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been pressing Washington to open a dialogue with Syria and Iran on Iraq, warned against making assumptions about who ordered the killing.

“We genuinely don’t know who was responsible for this act,” his spokesman said.

The attack came on the day the UN Security Council endorsed plans to set up an international court to try suspects in the February 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri, and Mr Bush promised that the new killing would not be allowed to derail them.

Mr Siniora, whose government is dominated by anti-Syrian figures, appealed for unity.

“Assassinations will not terrorise us. We will not let the criminal killers control our fate,” he said.

Hezbollah, which has called for mass rallies to push for change in the Siniora government, said the assassination was aimed at returning Lebanon to civil war, which ripped it apart between 1975 and 1990.

“There is no doubt at all that those who committed this crime want to push
Lebanon into chaos… and civil war,” the powerful Shiite militant group said.

Mr Gemayel was attacked in the Beirut suburb of Jdaideh. Security sources said his car was rammed from the front, then gunmen stepped out and shot him point-blank in the head. His bodyguard was also killed.

Gunmen also opened fire on the Beirut office of another anti-Syrian figure, state minister for parliamentary affairs Michel Pharaon.

People from across the political spectrum called for calm among a populace divided between allies and opponents of Syria.

“Don’t let one family’s latest tragedy become that of a whole country,” said the English-language Daily Star.

Christian opposition leader and Hezbollah ally General Michel Aoun called on all Lebanese to attend the funeral, but indicated he would not be there himself.

Mr Aoun told the private television channel NBN he regretted that the Gemayel family did not allow him to present his condolences. “They told me this was not the time. I regret that,” he said.

Prominent Christian leader Samir Geagea called for the immediate resignation of Damascus protege President Emile Lahoud, who himself denounced the killing as a “terrorist act.”

Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad, who heads the anti-Syrian majority in parliament, accused Syria of “trying to kill every free person” in Lebanon.

“The cycle (of killings) has resumed,” he said, referring to a series of assassinations and attacks in the past two years including the massive Beirut bomb blast that killed his father.

A UN probe has implicated senior Syrian officials in Mr Hariri’s murder, which sparked protests that forced Damascus to end nearly three decades of military domination in Lebanon.

The establishment of the international court must also be approved by
Lebanon, and is another issue that divides the government and the pro-Syrian forces led by Lahoud.

Diplomats at the United Nations revealed that M Siniora had contacted UN chief Kofi Annan to seek the assistance of the Mr Hariri inquiry in investigating the new murder.

US Ambassador John Bolton said he expected the commission’s Belgian chief Serge Brammertz to be able to provide the assistance without fresh approval from the Security Council.

“It would be our view that he already has authority to extend that assistance and that it would be prudent to do that as rapidly as possibly while the crime scene evidence is still fresh for obstruction of justice to take place,” he said.

Syria has denied any responsibility for the killings.

In Washington, the Syrian embassy issued a statement expressing “outrage” at the latest murder, saying it was “no coincidence” it occurred on the day the United Nations was examining the court plan.

“This charade of blaming Syria for every malicious event in Lebanon has been exposed a long time ago and is, simply, losing all credibility,” it said.

State media in Damascus accused Lebanon’s pro-Western government of taking the life of one of its own in a desperate bid to stay in power.

“The murderer wanted to undermine the mass mobilisation planned by
Hezbollah and influential forces in Lebanon and delay the inevitable fall of a government that has lost its legitimacy,” said the ruling party mouthpiece Al-Baath.

Mr Gemayel was the first anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since journalist Gibran Tueni was killed by a bomb last December.

He was the nephew of Bashir Gemayel, who was murdered in 1982 at the height of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, only nine days before he was to be sworn in as president.

The anti-Syrian camp, known as the “March 14” group, called for a massive turnout at Gemayel’s funeral Thursday and for a total shutdown of businesses nationwide.

“The entire world will hear in the next few days the real voice of Lebanon, the voice of freedom, sovereignty and independence,” said former MP Fares Sahed.